Why Betty Bigombe Is Not an Exception: The Invaluable Role of Women in Conflict Mediation

By: Giulia Cacopardo

When a successful mediation is compromised by the marginalization of women, it is essential to evoke the past for a fairer future. The story of Betty Bigombe will help us understand what that means.

Pictured: Scenes from the United Nations General Assembly Hall on 19 September 2017 prior to the opening of the General Debate. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

In 1917, Emile Durkheim stated that society is a system of interlinked components that, when in balance, operate smoothly to produce social solidarity. This perspective is easily applicable to the gender discourse, which has finally taken on significant importance. A gender equality culture is certainly something that most people are familiar with but, nonetheless, is also something not practiced in the majority of traditions. The prevalent mindset in the world presently is, despite all the achievements in terms of women’s rights, a patriarchal view of the society, which means a world based on the strengthening of the male figure as strong and energetic, whereas the woman is painted as a more fragile individual that fulfils herself throughout, for example, the care of the others. Obviously, this kind of mindset has a significant impact on the perception of women and, inevitably, on the role of women in society, most notably in the workplace.

Photo Credit: Ralph Alswang

The field of conflict mediation is one of the many where woman has been and still is discredited. There are, however, landmark cases that deserve to be mentioned as, for example, Betty Bigombe’s one, also known as Mommy Bigombe, a mediator that made history. Her experience as conflict mediator is exemplary of how any woman is obviously suited to the job as much as a man but at the same time disgraced by ‘society’. Her story as conflict mediator began when being a Member of Parliament in 1986. During her parliamentary mandate in Uganda, the Rebels were attacking the country’s northern districts, which resulted in the prolonged fighting with the dispatch of southerner Museveni’s army into the north. Although there were many attempts by the government to stop the regime of terror conducted by Joseph Kony in Northern Uganda they all failed.

When Bigombe decided to resign from her position for lack of work attributed to her, the President gave her the task of defeating LRA (Lord Resistance Army). The reaction of the members of the LRA when knowing about a woman sent to settle peace was characterized by resistance and mistrust with a goal of diminishing her role, followed by, not surprisingly, a letter which included phrases such as:

“This is a male domain; if you step in here we are going to kill you. Museveni don’t want to end the war, if he is sending a woman. He is insulting us even more.” (Interview to Betty Bigombe by ‘Enough Project’, 2012).

Despite all the challenges she had to face as a conflict mediator and especially as a woman mediator, she managed to prove herself worthy of her position and, through her inspiring ambition and power, Bigombe negotiated peace talks with one of the world’s most feared man, Joseph Kony. Eventually, the International Criminal Court convicted Kony for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Betty Bigombe’s path is the living proof that there is no such concept as a job made for men or women and that, as unacceptable as it is, women still have to prove themselves just solely for the fact that they are women.

The international community recognizes the multi-layered challenges women have to face and therefore in 2000 they issued the first Resolution (1325) focusing on the role of women in the maintenance of International Peace and Security. To ensure collaboration and coordination throughout the UN system in the implementation of the Security Council resolution, the Interagency Network on Women and Gender Equality established the Interagency taskforce on Women, Peace and Security. However, women continue to be highly unrepresented and therefore they have decided to support each other throughout new initiatives such as the so-called Networks. Networks have been created all over the world for women from every country, e.g. the Southern African Women (2010-2017), Nordic Women Mediators (2015) or again the Arab Women Mediators Network of League of Arab States (2019- in development).

Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

These networks are key strategies to advance women mediators thanks to the global connection and support they provide. Those mechanisms function also as an instrument for participation through enabling continuity during transition from family to work; the mentoring and intergenerational connection or again connecting the tracks of different processes going on. However, those networks also bear with them many limitations such as the sedimentation of a one-dimensional notion of women (as the ‘victim’) or the lack of commitment by government, which releases itself from the duty to help, thinking that simple financing is enough.

An example of a successful meeting of women happened while the Colombian Peace Process was taking place, in 2003. In order to deal with decades of civil conflict, 500 women from all over Colombia gathered to develop ideas and plans on how to act to start the peace process, also considering their presence as women. The peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo) signed in September 2016 was by the most inclusive peace agreement in history.

On balance, given the various efforts made by women and given the not entirely satisfactory results, the problem is confirmed to be structural rather than transitional. At the United Nations’ level, mediation has gone from being considered an art to being a science and, lastly, a little of both. Even though this is not the place to deepen the above-mentioned notions, this hint is fundamental. It shows us that, although great conceptual and practical changes have occurred within this field, Ariadne’s red thread that is the idea of woman has remained, reluctantly, intact. Therefore, whatever view is adopted, women are still marginalized or excluded.

Consequently, states, regions and the international community have a duty both to make better efforts in representing women and to seek change in the current mindset about the female ideal. For a well- functioning incorporation of women within these mediation processes and initiatives, the starting point should be education and a bottom-up approach. Without a real change of a tradition of thought, there can be no sustainable conflict prevention, peace or solidarity in the society.

About the author:

Giulia Cacopardo, 23 years old, graduated with top marks in Philosophy. She is now attending the European Master in Human Rights and Democratisation (EMA). For some years she has been trying to deal with human rights and for 4 years now she has been participating in collaborations between universities and prison institutions, supporting the right to study for students restricted to ‘Bollate’ house of prison (Milan, Italy).

She is writing her Master thesis on the relationship between new technologies and human rights with a focus also on gender discrimination, inherent in these machines. She is currently based in Milan, Italy.

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